Vincent Lam portrays Saigon’s Chinese community during Vietnam War
Lam was pegged a Canadian literary sensation in 2006 when, at the age of 32, he won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his first book, a collection of short stories called “Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.” In May 2012, his first novel “The Headmaster’s Wager” was published. In this Q and A, Lam discusses the role his own family history plays in the novel, as well as how he manages to balance his family life, writing and a career as an emergency physician.
What was the impetus for this novel?
The setting is important for my own family history. My family is Chinese from Vietnam and my parents grew up, in part, during that war. That is why that time period is very interesting and important for me.
How much of this book was inspired by your family history?
I think what a lot of fiction writers try to do, myself included, is to try to capture an emotional portrait of a particular time. In that respect, I tried to be very true to what I think were the emotions of that time. So in that sense it’s very real, although the actual things that happen are fiction.
How did you research this book? Where do you start when you are writing about a time and place that doesn’t exist anymore?
It’s a hard thing to do, and that is a question I asked myself many times. I did a number of things. I read about a hundred books as part of my research. I interviewed anyone who had some relationship to the story. The character of Percival, although fictional, was inspired by my grandfather. He was the headmaster of an English school, and a compulsive gambler and a womanizer. So I interviewed former students of his, former teachers and family members. I went to Vietnam twice.
Had you been to Vietnam prior to doing research for this book?
No. When I went, it was for the first time. It was explicitly with this book in mind.
You mentioned that the character of Percival Chen is modeled on your grandfather. Why did you choose to do this?
I have always been interested in somebody similar to my grandfather as a character. To me, it is fascinating to think about people who are deeply
flawed and have different sides to them. He’s not a purely bad character. He loves his family. He sometimes expresses that in very dysfunctional ways — but he will go to incredible lengths to try to help his son when he is in trouble. He is smart, talented and charming.
I think all of us have many different sides to our own character. In part, how our lives turn out depends on what parts of our own character we choose to emphasize. I think most people have the good sense to try to emphasize the parts of their character that are good. And some people emphasize the parts of their character which are bad, and that often turns out really quite badly. That’s how real life works.
To me, one of the really amazing things about fiction is that we can explore a deeply faulted character, and explore his strengths and his faults. We can live those things through fiction. We don’t have to go and make all the mistakes that he made and suffer the consequences ourselves. So I think that is what interests me in this character.
Has the story of the Chinese community in Vietnam been told before?
The short answer is no. Most of the really well known French and English language writing about the Vietnam War is written from the perspective of the western outsider. So the story of the Chinese community in Vietnam has not been told in this way before.
But the story of the Vietnam War intersects with Canada because a huge number of the Vietnamese boat people were ethnic Chinese. I have seen estimates that 70 to 80 percent of the boat people were ethnic Chinese. Canada was a country that was quite generous in terms of accepting boat people. So that is where the dénouement of the Vietnam War becomes part of Canada’s story.
How do you balance your family and a medical career with writing?
Medicine is a sensible, responsible thing to do. You do good work that helps people, you get paid for it and you are able to support your family. So medicine makes perfect sense. With writing you are chasing a dream and a vision, and it’s very hard to know if you are ever going to get paid for it. There is just no logic to it, whatsoever. So it’s very hard. You have to get to
a place where you believe the work is worth it on its own. I have to run my life so it’s fair to my wife and to my children. And honestly, it’s a constant tension. It’s a work in progress.
Do you ever envision a time you might leave medicine to focus solely on writing?
It’s very hard. I can’t say that I haven’t asked myself that question. But I can say that I haven’t arrived at an answer. I really enjoy both things. If I am not in the hospital for some time, I really look forward to going back. If I don’t write for a period of time, then I feel like a stale cup of coffee. They are both really big parts of my life. So I don’t know. Both are demanding. Both take the bite out of you, and they give back in huge ways. Both require a lot of energy, but it’s not all take. There is a lot of give in both of these fields. I am glad to have them both.
What’s next for you in terms of writing?
I will be writing more. I am not ready to talk about the next book yet. But it is growing deep within me.
Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for length.